VERNAL — Environmentalists are challenging the transformation of a dusty, graded roadway through the Book Cliffs area into a two-lane highway that would connect a large chunk of Uintah County to its southern neighbor, Grand County.
"It is just an important corridor, an important corridor to the county and an extremely critical road to us," said Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee.
A lawsuit over the the paving of Seep Ridge Road was filed in federal court Thursday by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance against the Bureau of Land Management for its 2011 decision that the project presented no significant environmental threats.
Wilderness advocates vehemently disagree and are asking a federal judge to make Uintah County or its contractors stop any of the work that is being done along the 45-mile section of the roadway.
"Completion of this project would radically change the remote nature of Utah's magnificent Book Cliffs region," the lawsuit states.
The Seep Ridge paving project involves an already existing road, for which McKee says the county owns the right of way, that begins at the southern boundary of the Ouray Indian Reservation in Uintah County and travels south to I-70. It would essentially connect U.S. 40 to I-70, serving as a north-south corridor for the oil and gas industry.
The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance says truck traffic and ground disturbance are just two elements of a decision the federal land management agency failed to take into consideration.
"The BLM failed to take a hard look at the impacts of the Seep Ridge paving project involving indirect and cumulative impacts," the lawsuit states.
The paving project would not only chew up 800 acres for the necessary expansion of the roadway but traverse yearlong habitat for pronghorn antelope and pose risks to sage grouse habitat, environmentalists contend. Completion of the project would compromise two areas contemplated as wilderness in the proposed Red Rock Wilderness Bill — Sunday School Canyon and Seep Canyon.
Additionally, the lawsuit said the federal agency did not view the project in the full lens of an already active oil and gas industry, but instead took the position of "essentially viewing components of this project in a vacuum" and overlooked air quality and wildlife impacts.
But McKee, who is the county's elected point man on public land uses, pointed out the road is already used and spews out dust from traffic that contributes to the basin's air pollution problems. An improved route, he added, would zap the dust effects and move traffic through the area more quickly and efficiently.
The lawsuit seeks to overturn the BLM's decision and stop the work in progress. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance also seeks compensation for attorneys fees and related expenses.